Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister for Education, at the 54th Thamizhar Thirunaal Community Fund Dinner Celebration


[Opening remarks in Tamil]


1. Today’s event celebrates 54 years of hard work and dedication by the Tamil Representative Council (TRC) and its members in helping to uplift the educational standards of the Indian community. Although the TRC was originally formed to bring together the Tamils and Tamil organisations in Singapore, it is now involved in various activities to serve the Indian community. These include providing bursaries to low income families and low-cost tuition classes for Indian students.

2. I commend TRC on its contributions to the Indian community over the more than 5 decades. I know that under the leadership of Dr. Theyvendran, with a team of young, energetic and committed professionals, TRC has embarked on new programmes to enhance the lives of Indians in Singapore.

Role of the Whole Community in Keeping Tamil Alive

3. The TRC like other Tamil community and media organisations can do much to help ensure that Tamil remains a living language in Singapore.

4. As you know, the Tamil Language Curriculum and Pedagogy Review Committee (TLCPRC) released its recommendations a few days ago. The Government has accepted its key recommendations and will implement them in phases in our schools over the next 5 years.

5. But for Tamil to remain a living language, it is not enough for schools to make changes to the way Tamil is taught. The language has to live outside the school.

6. This is our challenge. The Tamil community in Singapore is a small one, of 4-5% of the Singapore population. Compared to the Chinese or Malay languages, there are fewer natural, everyday opportunities for our young to use the Tamil language amongst their friends, on the MRT or in the shops, and in our neighbourhoods. Also, a far higher proportion of Tamil students speak English at home, compared to Malay and Chinese students.

7. Our Tamil students and their parents are however keen for them to learn the Tamil language. That’s an advantage. Students take Tamil seriously when they are in school, and generally do well in the subject. But too many of them leave the language behind when they leave school. If we do nothing, this situation will persist. The Tamil language will eventually fade away in Singapore.

8. The Tamil community faces a greater challenge than the Chinese and Malay communities in this respect. It therefore has to be more proactive, and to work much more closely together, in providing new and interesting opportunities for young Tamil Singaporeans to use the language. The whole community has the responsibility to ensure that the Tamil language does not wither away in Singapore. We must work together to ensure that Tamil is not just an academic subject, but a language of social interaction, a language of fun and emotion.

9. The family, the media and community organisations must take joint responsibility with schools, to provide opportunities for Tamil to be used by our young in a wide range of activities and occasions. We must ensure that our young continue to use the language, that it stays with them when they leave school, and that they find it relevant to their everyday lives.

10. To do this, we should give our youth opportunities to do the things that interest them. We have to know what makes them tick, and what brings them out of their regular routines to do something outside school or their workplaces with others in their generation. The young should themselves be given opportunity to organize their own events, and express themselves in the media. They should define their own culture, not have it defined for them by those of us who came before them. Only then will Tamil be a cool language, a language that each generation of young people regards as fashionable and wants to use.

Community-School Collaboration

11. I met representatives of the Tamil community organizations and media a a week ago at MOE, with Dr Varaprasad, who chaired the TLCPRC. I was glad to find that they supported the recommendations of the TLCPRC, and wanted to se how they could help schools and our students. They were already thinking of various ways of doing this. MOE will soon set up a Committee to help this collaboration between the community and schools.

12. We must bring resource persons from various professions into our schools, to interact with our students in Tamil, on issues that go beyond what students learn in their formal curriculum. It doesn’t matter if the resource persons do not speak perfect Tamil. What counts is the opportunity for our students to interact in Tamil with people from various walks of life. We must also succeed in creating an active calendar of Tamil activities within and beyond schools.

13. The TLCPRC had recommended that all community organisations can collaborate in organising Tamil Language month to promote the use of Tamil. At the last Tamil Language Month, Compassvale Primary took the initiative to organise innovative workshops where parents learnt how they could help in making the learning of Tamil Language interesting for their children. (Similar workshops were conducted for cluster teachers so that they could reach out to parents of their schools.)

14. Another area where the community can assist is in the promotion of Reading Clubs. The Narpani Peravai and the National Library Board can establish Reading Clubs and other language activities at Community Clubs to promote reading in Tamil. Some schools are already engaged in tapping into the libraries. For example, teachers and lower secondary TL students from Yishun Secondary visit the Ang Mo Kio library regularly to learn more about popular Tamil writers such as Jayakanthan.

Role of Media

15. The media plays a vital role in sustaining a lively use of Tamil. Both the print and TV media have to play a role not just in bringing news and culture to our young, but letting them be part of the making of a culture that they regard as their own. Tamil Murasu provides students with the opportunity to design and write some of its supplementary student publications like Manavar Murasu and Ilaiyar Murasu. The TV media can likewise consider having students produce programmes that can provide a platform for the talents of their generation, whether in essay writing, drama, song or oratory. Students can be encouraged to Spoken Tamil instead of Formal Tamil in these programmes.

Keeping Our Minds Open

16. The proposals for teaching and learning of Tamil in our schools will be implemented in coming years. We are confident that we are moving in the right direction. But what counts is how we implement the changes - the enthusiasm of teachers in schools, how well we train them, whether we can bring a more varied and interesting diet of Tamil reading materials to our students, and how closely schools work with the community to support the use of the language in new settings outside the school.

17. The changes will not be a final word on mother tongue language learning in Singapore. The languages will evolve, as the societies in which they are most commonly spoken are evolving. Young and educated people in Chennai today, for example, are quite different in their interests and the mix of languages they use compared to 20 years ago. Teaching techniques in these countries are themselves evolving. We will have to keep our minds open to new ideas, stay in touch with developments in schools and the media abroad, and make adjustments from time to time as we gain experience with the new techniques that we implement.

18. We should never get caught in a purist mould, because that is what will limit the use of the language by future generations, and prevent it from staying alive as a language.

19. The changes we will make in Tamil language teaching are not a defensive move. They do not aim to merely preserve what has existed, or preserve the language only because it is an official language. The changes are forward looking. They must reflect the aspirations of future generations, and their desire to be part of a culture that keeps renewing itself.

20. The changes also matter to Singapore, not just the Tamil community. Singapore’s future is that of a multicultural society, vibrant and open to the world. If we succeed in making Tamil a living language for future generations, Singapore will be richer for it.

21. To conclude, let me again say that schools cannot do this alone. It is only with the support and efforts of Tamil community organisations like the TRC, and the media, that we can assure ourselves that Tamil will be a living language and a vibrant part of Singapore’s identity as a multicultural, global city.